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Insights from the 12th Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

Af Lene Westergaard, Head of Programmes, Business & Human Rights, DEI, Anti-corruption
22.04.2024, kl. 11.36

By Lene Westergaard, Head of Programmes, Business & Human Rights, DEI, Anti-corruption

Navigating the Path to Effective Change: UN Global Compact Network Denmark's Insights from the 12th Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

On 27 – 29 November 2023, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights convened the 12th annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. The theme for the 2023 Forum was Towards Effective Change in Implementing Obligations, Responsibilities and Remedies. The UN Global Compact Network Denmark was present at the Forum throughout, attending as many sessions as we could in parallel to side-events, and engaging in great conversations in the hallways. 


The Forum attracted almost 4.000 people from all over the world representing stakeholders from businesses, business associations, investor groups, governments, academia, diplomacy, and civil society. 30 pct. of attendees represented businesses. This was the first Forum with sign language interpreters and closed captioning to make the forum accessible for people with disabilities. It was also the first Forum to include a session dedicated to the voices of youth. It seems effective change happens inside the UN walls as well. 


12 years down the road from the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, many sessions at the Forum made it clear that the discipline of preventing and addressing the risk of adverse human rights impacts linked to business activities is still an evolving field. At the same time, there is a growing body of cases and best practices documenting implementation in the business community. Also, we increasingly see business human rights managers assume panel positions traditionally held by academia. The point being: though it’s difficult to create a neat, packaged narrative around the changes over the past 12 years, shifts are notable. 


As the global economy becomes increasingly interlinked, and businesses grapple with a growing set of mandatory due diligence obligations (that don’t really seem to fit together), the importance of states and businesses aligning with the authoritative standard on Business and Human Rights, only becomes more evident. 


UN Global Compact Network Denmark left Geneva Wednesday evening feeling reinforced in our commitment to support and enbale businesses in knowing how to implement UN Guiding Principles-aligned due diligence process.


We could never hope to share the full constellation of insights relayed in and around the Forum, but three always seem to be a good number. So here goes:

 

1. The way businesses are expected to manage the S and the E should be better integrated. 

On the backdrop of recognising the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right by the UN Member States in 2022, it's generally accepted that human rights due diligence in line with the UNGPs should include an environmental perspective, including considerations of climate change. The emerging regulatory landscape, exemplified by initiatives such as the CSDDD points in the same direction.


While environmental risk management systems are quite mature, integrating environmental considerations into the UN Guiding Principles-aligned due diligence process will require environmental practitioners to do things a bit differently.


We can highlight three points here:

  1. Ensuring meaningful consultation with stakeholders and rightsholders on environmental impacts and their remedy would be one area to focus on.
  2. Another is measuring impact within supply chains. When it comes to climate related issues, the scope 1, 2 & 3 jargon of assessments is mandatory for many and well-integrated in business practices. This is not always the case when taking into consideration broader environmental impact related to criteria such as water, air pollution or biodiversity loss.
  3. A third focus point would be taking into consideration the impact on neighbouring communities of own facilities and facilities in the value chain. 


Expert and panellist in the session “Realising the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” Alexandra Quaqueta, pointed to 5 ways businesses can better integrate work on safeguarding the environment, ensuring a climate we can survive in, while respecting human rights.


Our interpretation here:

  1. The sustainability committees of boards should have a clear mandate to oversee the linked impacts of business operations on the environment and human rights. Better integration starts from the top and cascades down into management systems.
  2. Embed the integrated approach to S and E in relevant risk management systems and risk evaluation schemes. This will create not only the right incentives, but it will also ensure that you won’t be reinventing the wheel.  
  3. Support interdisciplinary solutions, and decision-making processes throughout the organizational infrastructure. Enable specialists to learn from and discuss with other specialists outside their own frame of reference.
  4. Cascade interlinked KPIs, and make sure they reach operational and commercial leaders, not only environmental or social managers that probably defined them in the first place.
  5. Lean on standards and procedures familiar in the environmental context such as impact assessments, life cycle assessments, and the scope jargon. Then reflect on how to better encompass human rights considerations within these standards and procedures.


UNDP and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights have drafted a guide for Business on Due Diligence and the Environment (in public consultation now).



2. The UN Guiding Principles must have a stronger presence in tech (and with its investors). 

Regulatory and policy responses to human rights challenges linked to the development and deployment of digital technologies are increasing. Being a fast-evolving space, responses to technology should allow for a degree of adaptability. In this sense, due diligence processes should have a strong presence in the mix of responses. 

The development and deployment of AI tools bring about their own set of challenges. Common biases at play in the design and development of AI will manifest as algorithmic prejudice, negatively impacting end users by reinforcing existing discrimination and rising inequality. 

 

“The availability of regenerative AI tools has very much reshaped the digital landscape and has animated a global debate of how we are addressing acritical intelligence, a debate that is long overdue. It is our hope that the UNGPs will provide the framework for this, going forward”, said Peggy Hicks of the UN Office for Human Rights. 

 

The larger tech sector, including its investors, must align with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as the authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse human rights impacts linked to business activities in this space to address the obvious human rights challenges in this space.


The B-Tech project provides authoritative guidance and resources for implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights in the technology space, including its investors. The ongoing project has had a spectrum of valuable outcomes. We recommend the overview of company practice regarding responsible AI and human rights and the investor briefing on Rights-Respecting Investment in Technology Companies.

 

3. Understanding the concept of a Just Transition

The concept of a Just Transition seems to mean a lot of different things to different people and organisations. Taking its departure in transitioning away from a fossil-dependent economy, it can encompass affected workers’ rights, communities, an equitable global economy, social equity, the environment and beyond. The concept is almost always accompanied by the notion of leaving no one behind.


During a session about the just transition in energy and extractive issues, the concept did receive some push back as it was pointed out that the term may be relabelling old, well-known issues voiced by rightsholders since the 1970’s. Issues include harassment, intimidation, displacement, and a lack of being included and heard. 

 

“Part of what we need to avoid is just relabelling something that is an old problem and still not actually tackling the root causes. Just transition is a great term, because it makes us feel better about what we're doing but in many ways we're just relabelling and still not tackling the essence of the problem”, said Justine Nolan, Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute. 

 

Justine Nolan went on to point out the challenges associated with the just transition issues in the energy and extractive sector can in part be attributed to a failure to incorporate the costs for both people and the environment into the pricing of goods and services. Until this oversight is recognized and addressed, the necessary resources and incentives to act responsibly may not be fully mobilized. 


Key to tackle ongoing challenges, often framed as the dark side of the green transition, would start with long-term engagement with local communities, where businesses would prioritize sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships with the communities they impact.  


Another crucial driver for success is accountability, which brings us back to the side label on the concept of a just transition: leave no one behind. With rising social and economic inequalities, it should be acknowledged that people will inevitably be left behind. Long term effective grievance mechanisms are crucial to ensure the people left behind have ready opportunities for remediation. Ad hoc remediation setups will not suffice so in this context, state involvement is paramount.


Linked with accountability, is transparency, which is a much-needed catalyst for positive change, not only around the source of the product or where it’s being extracted. Transparency is just as important when it comes to the processing plant and certainly also the contracts that govern business to business relationships. 


All sessions from the Forum are accessible on demand here.